Gender and Sexuality in Joyce

How does Ulysses represent gender and sexuality? Is sexuality gendered in Ulysses? How are women portrayed?

Leopold Bloom appears as a lightning rod for many these revelations, and for good reason. He carries the reader along with him, just as Stephen does, but he tends to experience the world in a much more sensual fashion--although it is not always so simple as that. Bloom’s casual voyeurism emerges as a salient feature in his first few chapters of existence, but it’s easy to overlook Stephen’s seemingly self-conjured admonitions for a similar predilection; “...You prayed to the Blessed Virgin that you might never have a red nose. You prayed to the devil in Serpentine avenue that the fubsy widow in front might lift her clothes still more from the wet street…” (Ulysses, pg 34). Both Stephen and Bloom have notably different relations to women and sexuality: Stephen as the intellectual with maternal hangups, Bloom as the sensualist.

And women characters? Where and how do they exist in the novel? Are women merely funneled through Bloom and Stephen, and thus ways of better understanding Bloom and Stephen? And - do the relationships between the men and women demonstrates conformity with gender roles, or alterity?

Stephen's Sexuality & "Mommy Issues"
Both Stephen and Bloom share a preoccupation with women and women’s bodies; however, it is the differences in how Bloom and Stephen react to women that proves particularly revealing. Stephen has a tendency to over-intellectualize the world around him. We see this emerging in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but it is in Ulysses that it receives particular emphasis. This over-intellectualization skews his conception of female subjectivity: he sees them as either “erotic,” “symbolic,” or “maternal” and fails to see women as whole, multifaceted human beings. This is exemplified by the way that he sees the old milk woman as a symbol of a worn-out and decrepit Irish culture. He objectifies her body in episode 1 ("old shrunken paps"), not to sexualize her but to appropriate her as a symbol for his purposes. This robs her of a sense of personhood and attaches a singular meaning to her presence, one chosen solely by Stephen.

Stephen’s mother represents the “maternal” woman. He is experiencing a personal crisis after the death of his mother; he is haunted by dreams at night about her dying, and in the daylight by his own sense of guilt over refusing to pray with her on her deathbed. It is important to emphasize that Stephen’s inner turmoil is directly linked to the absence of this central female character in his life. Stephen’s mother thus plays the role of the “absent center” of the first section of the novel--she is not present, but she is the driving force of Stephen’s interior mental states. This becomes important when, for example, he is contemplating death and drowning on the beach in the “Proteus” chapter. Underneath his over-intellectualized observations there is a distinct yearning for the maternal and for his childhood, particularly language-play (a key part of the bildungsroman aspect of Portrait): “His lips lipped and mouthed fleshless lips of the air: mouth to her moomb. Oomb, allwombing tomb. His mouth moulded issuing breath, unspeeched: ooeeehah: roar of cataractic planets, globed, blazing, wayawayawayawayaway” (40, lines 401-404...<-- click here to go further down the rabbit hole). This passage represents the entire bildungsroman of Portrait being reversed, undone completely, as if the loss of his mother represents the disintegration of his total sense of self.

We see too in “Proteus” that “erotic” images blend and drift into images of the maternal. He thinks, “She, she she. What she? The virgin at Hodges Figgis’ window on Monday looking in for one of the alphabet books you were going to write. Keen glance you gave her” (40, lines 426-428). This morphs rather quickly into, “Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me” (41, lines 434-436). It is not clear to whom Stephen is directing his thoughts in the second quote. Is it to the girl in the first quote, the “lady of letters” (line 430)? Is it his mother? Can the two yearnings--the maternal and the erotic--be safely separated here completely? For Stephen, the erotic is tangled in a complex relationship with the maternal. His education has taught him to see the connections between different concepts, to develop a fuller context to ideas. In “Proteus” this ability leads him to stasis and paralysis on the beach. We are left with an image of movement, but far removed from his own position (which only serves to emphasize his distinct lack of movement): “Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship” (42, lines 503-506). The word "silent" here becomes emblematic: he has been "unspeeched" earlier in the episode in a metaphorical (and deeply personal) world-destroying apocalypse. We are left with an image of Stephen's mute paralysis: "unspeeched," observing motion at a distance, himself unmoving.

Bloom's Sexuality & The Symbol of the Flower
The issue of gender, despite what we might expect from the relatively unenlightened times (sexually speaking), is muddied to the extreme in the character of Bloom. Despite living in his head, we might know more about miss Molly Tweedy, thanks to his thoughts, than we do about the man himself. Diversions into homoeroticism, masochism, and confusion of gender roles abound, but do not emerge with sufficient frequency or force that we might consider them pathology. From Portrait, we well know about Stephen’s tendency to regard women as either holy or whores (or perhaps some perverse combination of the two), yet this idea is not altogether abandoned in the mind of Bloom or the greater narrative of Ulysses.

To focus in on one of these instances of clear-as-mud sensuality, it behooves us to look at Bloom’s preoccupation with flowers. Obviously the man’s name, even his pseudonym (Henry Flowers) serve as a signpost for this theme. Yet an immediate peculiarity is that flowers are often associated with femininity, both in a general sense and in reference to fertility, to a “blossoming” into womanhood (such as we seem to be witnessing with Milly). Most of us are all too familiar with Georgia O’Keefe’s “flowers,” which conjure associations that are entirely vaginal. Yet Bloom, a male character, is indiscriminate with his use of flowers in his narrative. Though he refers to his manhood as a “floating flower,” he also says of Martha that she “Has her roses, probably,” a reference to menstruation (Ulysses, 64). The very same page sees him interspersing the names of various flowers among the coyly-naive words of Martha’s letter, in which he received a dried flower of some sort. Far from appearing as a demarcation of gender or innuendo for female fertility, Bloom’s flowers have a sort of sexless sensuality, and a sexuality which is equally bound to the smell and colors of flowers and the sound and sight of the names themselves. This theme also manages to transform Bloom who, in his preoccupation with the senses and with sex, might appear to the reader as some kind of aggressively male predator, into something more tender, thoughtful, and ultimately confused.

Gender Performativity, Labels, & Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom's Relationship

Only at the end of the 19th century did the terminology of "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality" come into existence due to medical science and it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that dictionaries began including these terms. Given that Ulysses comes into print only shortly after the invention of these terms, and that the plot takes place in 1904, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Joyce's understanding of sexuality/gender/sex was a lot more fluid and free-flowing (progressive even) for being unrestrained by labels.

Take for example Bloom staring at his genitals and seeing them as a floating flower. If we separate the anatomy/male sex from the gender Bloom has to play due to cultural/social expectations, we can interpret that Bloom sees himself in a female gender role while still having male anatomy. Why would Bloom see himself in this gender role? This can be answered in two ways. The first being the obvious exchange of sexuality roles between him and Martha in regards to their (lack of) sex life (Bloom allowing himself to be the cuckhold) and exchange of gender roles in that Bloom serves her breakfast in bed and does the errands for her beauty supplies. The second answer is more complex and lies in his relationship with Stephen Dedalus. It is not a sexual relationship the two have, but they both need each other to fill voids in their lives left empty by deceased loved ones. Bloom is constantly thinking of his dead son, and Stephen is constantly thinking of his dead mother. By assuming a female gender, Bloom fills the role of what Stephen needs in his life: a female presence. At one point Bloom even thinks that a female lover in his life would due him good: "Ferguson, I think I caught. A girl. Some girl. Best thing could happen him" (15.4950-4951). Stephen, on the other hand, takes on a neutral gender: the gender of a child. He refrains from any sensual pleasures, and allows himself to be left vulnerable in many ways. Hence, allowing for Buck Mulligan to have power over him and getting drunk in Circe. Circe is also the chapter in which both characters are finally in the same space as one another, including head space. To occupy the same head space or subconscious can lead to an exchange of identities, these identities already have undergone a change in gender before the exchange in Circe (Bloom because of Martha, Stephen because of Buck Mulligan) allow for the voids in each other to have the potential to be filled. Stephen chants lines in his stupor that connect him to singing at his mother's death bed (15.4934-4935, 4943-4944) connects back to (1.240-277), and Bloom sees his dead son Rudy who ultimately Bloom can't see because perhaps Stephen is already replacing him.

However, is it possible for this relationship to continue in a world that is changing towards labels (Oscar Wilde and the love that dare not speak it's name) and the pressures of British rule that are tied with monarchy/patriarchy/nationalism?


Female Characters & the Male Gaze
When it comes to the actual portrayal of Joyce's female characters, however, the female acts as a cornerstone in Joyce’s assemblage of gender. The construction of “woman” for Joyce is just short of agency. Femininity does not lack in the vacillation between Stephen and Bloom’s imagination, however the only power in which any female character embodies lives within the masculine mind. Although Stephen and Bloom seem to be opposites in the way they go about life, Stephen priding himself on intellectualism and Bloom’s propensity for voyeuristic objectification, we are mostly introduced to the character traits and emotions through a male character’s point-of-view. Male characters dominate the text, and we get a glimpse of only a few female characters.

A puzzling chapter for gender roles and narrative development as a whole is "Sirens" - where no women sing.

Early on, we see two letters written to Mr. Bloom, one from his daughter, Milly, the other from Martha. Both letters instigate an expression of gratitude in the initial sentence, however the language and tone employed in each letter is asymmetrical to the other’s message to Bloom. These letters are paramount in noting that they are employed through each female character’s own voice. This enables the reader to get to know both Milly and Martha through their own words. These letters are the first sign of Joyce’s utilization of a female character not performing the role of an object in the text, but rather an inch towards agency and power.

Stephen’s penchant to overthink things and his philosophical conceitedness, which we cannot ignore when he is shutting his eyes and when he goes to open them up he wonders “Has all vanished since?” (3.25), tends to take precedent over sexual thoughts and desires. Bloom contrasts this with his extreme satisfaction in the physical world. Joyce, through Bloom, is playing with the curiosities of sexuality. Through Bloom, the text is no stranger to masochism, masturbation and the “masculine gaze.”

Molly Bloom and the Male Gaze
“Molly measures her value through the capacity to attract the male gaze” (Sailor 100). This is an alarming statement by Susan Shaw Sailor in her article, “Women in Rooms, Women in History,” which seems to make Molly complicit in this highly objective viewing. However, this accommodation to male desire reveals a more sinister aspect of the patriarchal hold on society broadly and in Molly’s agency particularly. Sailor takes her title from Virginia Wolfe’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” and suggests that Wolfe intended that room to be a place where a woman can express her creativity and be an agent of her own sexuality. While Joyce enables Molly to have a singing career and the allure to attract a man like Blazes Boylan (whatever one may think of such a skill) he also endowed her with the strength to accept her fate. A nefarious attribute, surely, given that he could have allowed her to shape it. Sailor argues this as well when she points out Molly is there to accommodate Bloom’s life.

There seems to be a consensus surrounding Molly’s role as a concert singer. Sailor suggests Molly uses this career not to expand her personal and financial growth, but to merely enrich her sensuality. Christine Froula believes Molly’s career has much more to do with sexual triumphs over other women than musical ones. “I know more about men…. (Ulysses 760-61). Molly’s desire “is not free but encumbered by the exigencies of her sexual self-merchandising” (184). She wants Boylan to desire her and buy her lingerie so that he will desire her and buy her lingerie and on and on. But she doesn’t hold Boylan in much high regard, seeing him as a stand-in for the vapid “heroes” of a Harlequin Romance. In the end, “she scarcely desires either Boylan or the lingerie in themselves but rather finds herself caught up in a kind of sexual rat race, impersonating femininity in pursuit of pleasure at best, escape from stupefying boredom at worst” (184).

Margaret Mills Harper looks at Molly’s career from the perspective of her clothing purchased and worn for her performances. These draperies, she suggests, adorn Molly in unflattering characteristics or the means by which to critique Joyce’s character. “Her preoccupation with dress may be taken to indicate deficient intellectual capacity, excessive sexuality, narcissism, bourgeois values, interest in appearance…or enactment of an engendered role” (238). Instead, Harper chooses to view Molly’s concern with her own appearance in order to discuss the control of her voice: the text of “Penelope.” Harper develops the image of drapery to include constructing those materials and allows Molly to weave and unravel narrative in its linear form. Yet, if Molly as a character is trapped within the patriarchal system, as a narrator she is free of such female objectivity. Rather than cloak her subjectivity within narrative norms that “might seem to spatialize time by adhering to ‘cycles, gestation, the eternal recurrence of a biological narrative,’” Molly’s is non-linear, repetitive and circular “and seems to attempt a redefinition of time and space” (239, 240). If Molly is subjugated within the content of “Penelope,” she is more free in its form.

Works Cited

Froula, Christine. Modernism’s Body: Sex, Culture, and Joyce. Columbia Univeristy Press. New York: 1996

Harper, Margaret Mills. “Taken in Ddrapers”: Drressing the Narrative in the Odyssey and “Penelope” in Molly Blooms: A Polylogue on “Penelope” and Cultural Studies. Ed. Richard Pearce. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, 1994.

Sailor, Susan Shaw. “Women in Rooms, Women in History” in Pedagogy, Praxis, Ulysses: Using Joyce’s Text to Transform the Classroom. Ed. Robert Newman. University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor, 1996.


From the very first “appearance” of Milly in the form of the letter that Bloom reflects on, we see Bloom obsessing about his daughter’s blossoming sexuality. In fact, any time Bloom thinks about his daughter his thoughts come around to sex. This comes out most explicitly in the “Circe” chapter, when Bloom actually mistakes his daughter for his wife during a romantic vision of when the latter two first met (or had sex?). Note too that they have almost the same name; Milly is named after her mother.

“‘I see her! It’s she! The first night at Mat Dillon’s...’” to which Bello replies, “‘That’s your daughter, you owl, with a Mulligan student’” (15.3162-15.3165).

As we see in the “Nausicaa” chapter, Bloom has a thing for underage girls about (or even younger than) his daughter. Shortly after masturbating to Gerty, Bloom’s thoughts turn again to the physicality of his daughter, her “little paps,” and when she first began menstruation (13.1200).

This potentially (if only unconsciously and not actually) incestuous relationship is also ironically hinted at when Bloom is on trial for sexually assaulting Mary Driscoll in “Circe”. In his defence, his lawyer J.J. O’Molloy says “The young person was treated by defendant as if she were his very own daughter” (15.974-975), which apparently does not preclude sexualization.